With demand for contract maintenance rising, you can’t risk being left at the back of the queue. But by using digital solutions you can have real-time data about your asset performance and guaranteed maintenance when you need it.

Before the pandemic, outsourcing was very much in vogue. But then COVID-19 struck and the external workforce was barred from coming to site, prompting a rethink about how we employ contractors.

Although contractors can provide additional flexibility and reduce costs, companies using them also have responsibilities for their health and safety. Additionally, you need to provide training and comply with other relevant legal duties.

Studies show that using contractors can lead to a loss of control over your maintenance programme, loss of knowledge due to high staff turnover and even duplication of management effort, as you end up managing their managers.

Researchers have also identified the impact on in-company teams of using contractors and emphasised that they need to be managed for the outcomes they deliver rather than the time they spend on-site.

The use of contractors was increasing even before COVID-19, driven by a shortage of skilled people. In a 2019 survey, half of employers reported having trouble recruiting engineers, up from a third two years earlier.

The situation seems to have become even tougher since the pandemic. The 2021 skills survey from the Institute of Engineering and Technology found that 96% of engineering employers had experienced difficulty recruiting suitably qualified engineers.

Is contracting right for your organisation?
So, if you can’t get the people and you decide to use contractors, how should you go about it? Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria at RS Group says you must have absolute clarity about why you are using contractors.

“You should contract-out if it is genuinely cheaper but if there’s a lot of hidden costs, it’s often not.”Richard Jeffers, Managing Director, RS Industria, RS Group

“I’ve got three rules of contracting, which have stood me in good stead,” he says. “First, you should contract-out if it is genuinely cheaper but if there are a lot of hidden costs, it’s often not – so you need to be sure it’s genuinely cheaper.

“Second, it can be a way of getting a specialist skill that you don’t need to have permanently in-house. Third, when you’re managing peaks and troughs, you can bring people in to ramp up the team when you need it and then turn the resource off again when you don’t.

“If your contractors tick two or even three of those boxes then contracting-out is a legitimate strategy,” he adds.

Maintenance Engineering Academic Dr Moray Kidd agrees that contractors can provide a good solution in the right circumstances. “I think there’s no replacement for outside expertise provided it’s managed accordingly,” he says. “But to outsource everything in every industry will be quite unwise.

“I’ve had plenty of experience of where it’s gone badly wrong,” he adds. “I think a blended approach is appropriate. And it has to be the right set of conditions for the right environment, applied appropriately.

“A smart way to do it is where the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) provides you with maintenance. If it’s standard, usually critical equipment, the best people to maintain it are those with specification and design knowledge and a clear understanding of how best to maintain it,” he adds.

Preserving in-house maintenance knowledge
But Dr Kidd urges caution to those who may be thinking about replacing in-house teams. “Where it’s unwise is when you’re working with bespoke equipment you’ve been operating over a number of decades and you’ve built your own intellectual property on how best to maintain those assets. I think an in-house team with the appropriate experience and competencies is invaluable and that should not be outsourced.”

Retaining knowledge in the business is critical, whether contractors are used or not, he says. “People retire, people change, but you’ve got to have good processes internally to retain that knowledge, training and education.

“You can outsource pretty much everything. But you can't outsource the risk in terms of production loss, impact to people and our environment. And that's what should really focus the mind.”Dr Moray Kidd, Maintenance Engineering Academic

“In theory, you can outsource pretty much everything,” he says. “But you can’t outsource the risk in terms of production loss, impact to people and our environment. And that’s what should really focus the mind.”

Maintenance that comes as part of a support package for new equipment is great, but what do you do when it comes to an end? That was the challenge faced by one soft drinks maker when OEM maintenance on a critical machine in their production process was due to end.

How to replicate the OEM’s intimate knowledge of the machine and its operating parameters? The solution was to replace its periodic monitoring of the machine with continuous monitoring using digital devices.

Fourteen individual accelerometers were used to cover the main rotating components of the machine which filled and sealed drinks cans. The data they provided not only gave an insight into ongoing wear, but also protected the machine against unexpected failure.

Of course, not every organisation is going to be in a position to go straight to a digital solution when a maintenance contract ends. For some it will be about building a business case for more headcount to carry out the work.

Richard Jeffers emphasises that, however you choose to employ maintenance engineers, digital tools will give you the edge by providing a picture of how assets are performing. This will create opportunities to improve asset reliability and optimise energy usage.

The data these tools generate will provide you with new insights that can be used to refine and even transform your manufacturing processes. You may still decide to bring in contractors for specific jobs, but you will have taken back control of your maintenance programme.

Data is key to a modern maintenance regime
As in many other areas of operations, the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technology in maintenance engineering. Instead of going to the machines for a readout of their condition, the machines deliver their data to you.

Whether you choose to use contractors or have a wholly in-house team, being able to see how all assets are operating puts you in control and allows you to create a truly 21st century maintenance programme.

For information on support RS can provide, please visit RS Maintenance Solutions here.